Greece, Turkey, Russia and the United States

Ten years after the sudden thaw in Greek-Turkish relations – when killer earthquakes in each country allowed their peoples to reach out to each other after decades of tension – it is disheartening to see the main sources of friction remain unchanged. The Cyprus problem is unsolved, Turkey misses no opportunity to challenge Greece’s sea and territorial rights in the Aegean and the Turkish government now plans to explore for oil in the eastern Mediterranean near Cyprus. Greece’s advantage in the years since Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974 has been the strength of Greek-American support and its membership in the European Union (since 1981). Its membership of NATO, which set it way above its other Balkan neighbors, was not an advantage over Turkey, as both countries became members the same year (1952). The rivalry has forced both countries to spend huge amounts of money on defense, with Greece having the highest per capita military costs in NATO, to the detriment of economic and social development. The historical alliance with the United States has helped to keep the peace between Greece and Turkey (as in the dispute over the Imia islets which nearly provoked a war in January 1996). But the United States’ painfully self-conscious evenhandedness in Greek-Turkish relations gives Ankara the advantage – because Ankara is the one making demands, not Athens. So it is natural that Athens should look for ways to strengthen its position. The collapse of the Soviet bloc in 1989 presented such an opportunity, as the countries of the region were no longer confined to the roles established by the Cold War. Unfortunately, Greece found itself absorbed by the efforts of a small northern neighbor to gain international recognition with the name «Macedonia.» Instead of using its unique weight as a longtime member of NATO and the EU to forge new alliances in the region and influence developments, Greece spent all its diplomatic capital in the EU and the Balkans scrambling to prevent recognition of «Macedonia.» If Athens had quickly solved the problem through a compromise, it would have had the time and energy to deal effectively with Turkey and the Cyprus problem. The result is that none of these fronts looks likely to close anytime soon. And Greece has lost its comparative advantage because, in the meantime, most countries in the region have joined NATO and have either become full members of the EU (such as Bulgaria and Romania) or are on their way to accession. A closer relationship with Russia was expected to make up for some of the lost diplomatic capital. The energy sector provided just the opportunity for this, with Greece and Russia signing several deals in the past few years – including the building of a joint Greek-Russian-Bulgarian oil pipeline to bypass Turkey’s Bosporus, Greek participation in the South Stream natural gas pipeline and a renewed contract for gas supplies. Now, with Russia’s sudden embrace of Turkey, Greece is awakening to the fact that it does not have the special partnership it thought it enjoyed with Moscow. As in its relationship with the United States, Greece finds once again that countries cannot be friends the way their peoples may be – countries function only on the basis of their own interests. It is time for Greece’s politicians to look at Greece’s strengths and build on them, to deal with its weaknesses and to determine new strategies and tactics. A country can be strong and self-confident only when its economy and society are strong and when it is a valuable ally on the basis of mutual interests, not as the result of pleas for assistance.